Player on the Black Keys

Player on the Black Keys

In an extract from a memoir in progress, musician Tony MacMahon remembers moments of inspiration, captivation – and terror. Photo: Lucy Clarke

It was the two blind Dunne brothers who first split my darkness open.

I was ten. Their music had a sort of call, dragging at my innards like a bad dream at breakfast. The fiddle and banjo being played into my face in the Ennis market-place that afternoon had a rough and raucous sweetness, as if two jug-fulls of music pleasure were being poured at the same time into my two ears.

My face was within inches of the fiddle; dirty fingers scrawbed at me, trained, as I was, in the washing of hands, face and neck. Only what teachers and neighbours saw. Everything else went unwashed. I was standing looking up at the four vibrating fiddle strings, into strange eyes and parted lips. I had never seen fingers as long, as yellow or as dirty – the nails were long and curved like talons, caked in black dirt. A kind of sweet nausea began to prod at my empty stomach: the sharp, darting movements of fingers on gut and metal strings, as if under attack from the beaks of wild and peevish birds. And the screams of pleasure those strings blasted out into the damp Clare air made my heart sing, at the age of ten, schoolbag on my back, on my way home from the Ennis Christian Brothers.

Years later I found out their names, and the name of the first reel I heard that day, ‘The Broken Pledge’. Christy Dunne played the banjo and his brother Michael the fiddle. Michael stood small and frail in a suit of shabby brown, his left cheek glued to the yellowing violin, his mouth slightly open, his eyes a milky grey-white, seemingly sightless. Christy was tall and magisterial, better dressed. Also partially sighted. Thirty years later I had the joy of inviting them to appear on a television show I was producing at the time for RTÉ called The Pure Drop, and while waiting for the artists to come on stage, an official of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann knocked, entered the control room, and asked if I wanted two tinkers waiting outside for me to be sent away.

The darkness those two men punctured for me that afternoon in Ennis had fallen on me a few years before. I was about six. Maybe seven. As I crossed from O’Connell Street, Ennis, to the Turnpike where I lived, a bird-cry stopped me. I was a lad with glasses and a funny stare, gangly and awkward. Gawking into Moloney’s yard that day I saw something that has tormented me to this day and I have a recurring daydream of unseen hands wrenching my second and third vertebrae apart from behind, launching me into the abyss.

It all goes back to flailing wings and floating sunlit feathers. To Joe Moloney’s poultry yard in Ennis. Slant, the handyman, in his cloth cap and flour-bag apron sitting on a box in the shed, stretching a chicken’s neck over his knee and pulling deeply downwards until I heard the crack. Convulsions while the plucking started, fistfuls of feathers torn from the roots, dropped in a basket, some escaping to float in sunlit elegance upwards and out the narrow door of death.

Over his right knee each neck was stretched and broken, as I watched, stuck to the ground in fear and horror. After each plucking the dead chicken was dropped into a basket on the other side, the right knee uncovered and ready for the next ball of writhing brown and gold feathers.

I don’t know why it reminds me of my third-class teacher. An errant boy was called to the top of the class. The teacher stood feet apart and gestured to the boy, pointing a short wooden stick downwards and inwards towards himself. It was the signal – the boy bent down and put his head between the teacher’s knees. The teacher then bent forward and gently tapped on the front of the boy’s knee-caps until the knees locked. The teacher was short and thin. The boy was now bent in the shape of an inverted L – legs locked and upright, bottom sticking up and head secured between teacher’s lower thighs. He would bend forward over the boy’s back, stretch the thin trouser-cloth over his bum with the finger-tips of both hands and beat him on the bottom with his stick until the boy writhed in pain between his thighs. He was short, thin, peevish and bad-tempered and he always seemed to have one hand in his pocket, straining to fix whatever had to be fixed inside.

Fear was the form. You put your head down and hoped the teacher didn’t scalp you with the knuckles of his closed fist on the side of your skull above the ear at algebra class. You knew nothing about fear until that cunt had you standing at the blackboard in your leaky shoes, his big arse plonked on the radiator, his paunch stuck out. A crack on your ear-bone with four knuckles. Dull bumps and the whistle of a distant train in your sore ear. No real problem until your mother finds that advert for tea-boy in a recording studio and your future boss sends you for a hearing test. The audiologist’s graph comes back with a nasty bend downwards like a fiddler’s elbow. Deaf in one ear above 2,000 cycles per second. Fuck off for yourself and make someone else’s tea.

Which I suppose is why the shiny little brass cartridges in the kitchen drawer at home in the Turnpike were a god-send – daddy’s .22 rifle a few feet away beside the dresser. A few loose detonators keeping the slugs company in the drawer. At least you could dream about getting your own back. If ever you had the chance.

One morning in the science room I was sitting next to a boy called Dessie Maher who occasionally lapsed into a state of strange, frightening behaviour: he would suddenly clasp his hands together between his knees, his whole body trembling, eyes shining, teeth bared in an ugly snarl of distress. Half-way through the physics lesson he had a seizure and just as I asked him what was wrong I found himself impaled on a stare from the Brother. I shrank in fear as Dessie’s convulsions brought the entire class to a state of horrified watchfulness. A command cut into my brain: ‘Come up here, Sonny!’

Believing it to be an order to Dessie, I glanced at him, and saw the glazed eyes, the quivering body. Looking around, several pairs of eyes told me that he meant me. I got up and walked to the front of the classroom. The Brother was on the rostrum, next to a demonstration desk on which stood a glass vessel containing nitric acid, the flame of a bunsen-burner licking at its base. Bluish liquid bubbled. He spoke words I will never forget. In three, spaced commands:

‘Take off your glasses, sonny.’
‘Put your glasses on that desk, sonny.’
‘Now put your hands down by your sides, sonny.’

I folded the spectacles and placed them on the desk. Looking back up at him, my good right eye was just finding focus when a blur of movement shafted into my peripheral vision on the left, followed by the explosive concussion of a blow to my head. Vision shot to black, traces of white light bursting outwards from a pain deep inside my skull. The four blows which followed registered only as violent, rocking motions, delivered to each side of my head, spaces of several seconds between them. My left ear now screaming in outrage, a hard pain tunnelled its way down deep inside my skull. Momentarily blind and deaf, the sixth and final blow sent me crashing against the demonstration desk.

But no tears came. My vision began to clear. I felt a hand on my arm. Dessie  handed me my glasses and guided me back to my seat. At the outer margins of pain, something awful happened to me. Sitting down, a deep calm settled on me which melted, in a kind of slow-motion, into a strange and stellar stillness, out of which a shaft of hatred hatched and began to claw its way inside me. It was an interior harmony such as I had never known. With it came a dulling of the pain in my head and a dawning awareness of my own body: I looked at my hands… claw-like… like the fiddler’s hands, yellow talons with undernail deep dirt… and my mind began to tumble into a jumble of wild, flashing images… fingers in flames… claws, talons, crows and jack-daws tearing at my eyes… dirt from nails embedded under my eye-lids… wild notes showering like hot coals off the steel banjo strings… energy began to pump… anger blazed … fused with revulsion at what had been happening to me… the writhing chickens and the fistful of shining feathers… the silence at home… the cancer-sore on our dog’s front paw…

I looked up and saw the Brother re-setting the experimental apparatus as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I now found myself studying him, whereas in the past I would have looked at him with fear. Suddenly, the riot of fury in me took on a mind of its own; my good eye riveted on a shaving-cut on the Brother’s jaw. The dried blood and its fragment of white paper began to melt in slow motion into a pistol foresight blade which began to move up and down and all over the black soutane until it sat on the mouth –  on the lips. And steadied there, and disappeared. Skull-pain lanced through me again, propelling me into a surge of rage.

Then, just as naturally as picking up a cup of tea, I whispered in silence to myself: ‘I’ll do it.’

Published on 1 January 2009

Tony MacMahon is a traditional musician and former television producer in RTÉ, where he produced The Pure Drop, The Green Linnet, Aisling Gheal, The Long Note, The Blackbird and the Bell and many other series. He has made two solo recordings, Tony MacMahon (1972) and MacMahon from Clare (2000), and recorded I gCnoc na Graí (1985) with Noel Hill and Aislingí Ceoil (1994) with Noel Hill and Iarla Ó Lionáird.

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